Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Major makeover for our Air Pollution Information System

Guest blog by Bill Bealey of CEH’s Edinburgh research site

Our Air Pollution Information System (APIS) is now 10 years old. APIS helps deliver our science to a wider audience by providing a wealth of information on air pollution and its impacts on the environment.  It is the only UK web-site to focus entirely on atmospheric air pollution and ecosystem impacts as other air pollution sites focus on human health impacts.

APIS has been used in many environmental assessments including those for the Stanstead and Lyyd airport extensions, the new Kingsnorth power station, various road bypasses, and many large livestock installations.

Relaunched this week, APIS has been given a make-over to bring it up to date with new web technologies and provide a better user experience. You can read more about the APIS relaunch on our news pages, and visit the new APIS website by clicking here.

The APIS homepage

Improvements that have been made to the site include:
  • An updated application to assess the risk of air pollution impacts on Natura 2000 sites and SSSIs in the UK. The website includes revised modelled deposition data and new ‘critical loads’ for nutrient nitrogen and acidity; the ability to examine the major source inputs to a designated site, and produce data and graphs for each designated feature on the site.
  • A simpler search tool for assessing air pollution impacts on a particular habitat (pollutant-habitat records).
  • A new ‘query by location’ tool to look up multiple pollutants at the same time.
  • A new look and feel, with a wider page layout which works on bigger screens.
  • Feedback forms, to help us continually improve the site.
Developed and hosted by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, APIS is a support tool used by staff in the UK conservation and regulatory agencies (e.g. SEPA, the Environment Agency, SNH, Natural England, Northern Ireland EA, and CCW), industry and local authorities, for assessing the potential effects of air pollutants on habitats and species. As such, it aims to enable a consistent approach to air pollution assessment across the UK. Other potential users include non-governmental organisations, universities, students or anyone interested in finding out more about air pollution effects on wildlife.

Results from one of the APIS assessment tools

We'd really like your views on APIS so please let us know using the contact form on the APIS website or leave a comment below.

Bill Bealey

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Harlequin ladybird spotted in Shetland

Most northerly record received to date
Guest blog from Dr Helen Roy of the UK Ladybird Survey
On 18th February 2012 a confirmed record of the alien Harlequin ladybird was received by the UK Ladybird Survey from the Shetland Islands.  The ladybird was spotted in the kitchen of a local resident.  This is the most northerly record of the Harlequin ladybird in Britain.  Previously the most northerly record of the Harlequin ladybird in Britain was from Orkney.
The Harlequin ladybird arrived in South East England in 2004 and has spread at 100 km per year across England and into Scotland. 

The first confirmed Harlequin ladybird in Shetland - (c) Elizabeth Wark

Elizabeth Wark who sent the record to the UK Ladybird Survey described her sighting: “I was sitting at my kitchen table having my morning coffee when a slight movement on the ceiling caught my eye. It certainly wasn't a spider so I stood up on the table for closer inspection. To my surprise it was a ladybird! I have never seen a ladybird with this particular colouring or markings before so I went online to try to identify it. This led me to the UK Ladybird Survey.”
The ladybird is currently located in the Aith Junior High School science laboratory under observation by local school children.  Many of the children have never seen a ladybird before, let alone this particular species. 
There are 47 species of ladybird resident in Britain but these are rarely seen on Shetland.  Indeed there have only been a scattering of sightings of a few common species. The Shetland Biological Records Centre has only 9 other ladybird records of 5 different species, which include a possible (but not confirmed) sighting of a Harlequin in 2009.
Paul Harvey of the Shetland Biological Records Centre told us, “We know there will be plenty more records out there as ladybirds tend to look a little out of place in Shetland, so please let us know if you’ve ever seen one and if you have photos, even better!”
The arrival of the Harlequin ladybird on the Shetland Islands was perhaps inevitable.  This record again highlights the importance of volunteer recorders in tracking the spread of invasive alien species.  Their commitment to the UK Ladybird Survey is inspirational!
Dr Helen Roy

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Dealing with 'drought' questions

'Drought' questions have been flooding(!) in to CEH this week as several organisations release new data on the UK water situation. Several papers have been having a field day with their headlines. Our favourite was '2011 was the driest year in England and Wales for 90 years' (actually the rainfall records indicate that 2010 was drier than 2011).

Whilst we've been speaking to many journalists on the phone it also seems appropriate to post a selection of useful links giving background on the current situation, and some of the context behind the headlines.

First here is our standard answer to 'What is a drought?' - the simple answer being "droughts mean different things to different people"

Second we run the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme* (more details below). This recent blog post gives more background on what we do with hydrological data (which is rather different to the roles played by other organisations such as the Environment Agency and the Met Office).

We have also just published our latest monthly hydrological summary for the UK, covering the month of January 2012.

The introduction to the summary starts:
“The synoptic patterns which have produced a remarkably sustained exaggeration in the NW-SE rainfall gradient across the UK continued in January. Much of central, eastern and southern England was again relatively dry and the development of the current regional drought now extends across three winter periods with a range of impacts embracing water resources, agriculture and the aquatic environment.” ...and continues... “In the absence of an unusually wet late winter and early spring (as happened in 2000 for example), it is now virtually inevitable that a significant degree of drought stress will be experienced (in some parts of England) in 2012. The magnitude of that stress, and its spatial extent, will be heavily influenced by rainfall over the next 8-10 weeks.”

Key information from the summary can be read here.

A pdf copy of the full 12-page summary can be downloaded from this link.

If you wish to reproduce figures from the summary please respect the copyright credits contained within the document.

And finally please call us if you have queries. We'll try and help!

Update - 18:30 16 February 2012

A number of news outlets are reporting that "This week the Centre for Hydrology and Ecology reported that average rainfall so far this winter was the lowest since 1972." We're not aware that any of our staff have stated this to journalists and believe it may be a misinterpretation of the following paragraph in the January Hydrological Summary (rainfall section, page 1).

"Accumulated rainfall deficiencies, although locally variable, are exceptional across a wide range of durations. Provisionally, the Anglian region recorded its lowest March-January rainfall in a series from 1910 (over the same 11-month period Scotland established a new maximum precipitation total). As notably, some parts of the Midlands have reported only three months with above average rainfall since November 2009 and the accumulation for the subsequent 26 months is the lowest on record (for periods beginning in December) in a series from 1910; for the Thames basin it was the driest since 1972-74 – such deficiencies were more common in the 19th century."

The National Hydrological Monitoring Programme

*The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology jointly operates the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme (for the UK) in conjunction with the British Geological Survey. NHMP scientists produce the UK Monthly Hydrological Summary which assesses rainfall, river flows, groundwater and reservoir levels. They also operate the UK’s National River Flow archive. The NHMP also has a remit to analyse major flood and drought events in the UK and analyse long term trends in UK hydrological data.

Posted by Barnaby Smith

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The slow burn

Not all of our news stories have an immediate headline grabbing impact on day one. While widespread coverage can occur, it’s not always achievable and some stories take more of a slow burn route. In fact, a slow-burning story may have even greater impact and reach, as it gets diffused through several different sources over a longer period. 

A paper on a hedgerow management study, led by one of our scientists, Dr Jo Staley, and featuring several CEH colleagues, was first published online in the journal Biological Conservation in November. Following a media briefing from our Press Office, it featured in many web and blog outlets in December, and is still getting good coverage in February, thanks to the latest Planet Earth podcast. 

Published by Paulette.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

More details on the mosquito rediscovery story

There were a few eye-catching headlines in some media outlets today announcing a new arrival, or re-arrival, to British shores. Stories in the Mirror, the Mail, Planet Earth Online and Reuters followed the publication in the journal Parasites and Vector of a paper by scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Health Protection Agency giving details of the discovery of the mosquito, Culex modestus, in some areas of southern England.

It was a potentially difficult story to get across without being alarmist: Cx modestus is known to carry West Nile Virus in other parts of the world, although the paper, which is open access, and our accompanying press release all state clearly that the virus has not yet been found in the UK.  It is important however to understand the current distribution of Cx modestus and what associated risks, however small, it may bring.

Map of Thames estuary showing satellite predictions of habitat suitable for Cx modestus. Red
dots are most similar and blue represents possible islands of habitat, darker blue being more suitable.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Ladybirds break out of the Ivory tower

In March 2005 a launch event took place at the Natural History Museum in London. A new online biological survey was presented to a group of invited journalists. The survey aimed to persuade members of the British public to submit sightings of a newly arrived alien invader, the Harlequin ladybird, first spotted in the UK in September 2004.

The launch attracted lots of media attention with the BBC subsequently reporting the fears of the scientific team behind the survey that the Harlequin would “sweep aside many of the 46 species from the ladybird family (Coccinellidae) in Britain.”

Seven years later a new paper has been published in the scientific journal Diversity & Distributions examining whether that initial prediction has come to pass. Sadly it appears that for many of our widespread native ladybirds it has. Once again the BBC has reported the story, this time with the headline ‘Ladybird decline driven by 'invading' harlequin’.

A Harlequin ladybird

The scientists who wrote the new paper found that declines in native ladybird species are occurring in Britain and also in Belgium and Switzerland, two other European countries where the Harlequin ladybird arrived in the 2000s. The stark conclusion was principally based on careful analysis of over 150,000 ladybird records submitted by members of the public. The researchers used generalized linear mixed-effects models (GLMMs) to assess the distribution trends of eight conspicuous and historically widespread and common species of ladybird within Belgium and Britain before and after the arrival of the Harlequin ladybird.  They also examined ladybird abundance records from all three countries.

The back story behind the new paper is a great example of how the European biological recording community have made full use of the power of the internet to improve the quantity and quality of the datasets they collect. By harnessing the combined efforts of thousands of members of the public, the ladybird ‘team’ has collated an amazing dataset tracking the impact of the most invasive ladybird on Earth, and one of the fastest spreading non-native species in Europe. The records have provided one of the first demonstrations of a strong link between the arrival of an invasive alien species and a decline in native biodiversity at a large spatial-scale.  

The ‘ladybird’ scientists have used many methods to inspire members of the public to record and photograph ladybirds, talking to schools and local wildlife groups, as well as exhibiting at Science Festivals, and answering questions from journalists at all times of the day or night. I have a vivid memory of attempting to coordinate multiple broadcast interviews about ladybird ecology at 1am in the morning on the first day of the 2009 Royal Society Summer Show.

Recently Dr Helen Roy from the UK Ladybird Survey team, the lead author of the Diversity and Distributions paper, has been harnessing the power of twitter to engage a new group of recorders. You can follow her ladybird musings via @UKLadybirds

Without the public’s participation in the Harlequin Survey, launched that day in London, and the wider and longer running UK Ladybird Survey, as well as input to a similar online survey run in Belgium, the predicted impact of the Harlequin would have remained just that, a prediction. 

Scientists are sometimes presumed to spend their lives in Ivory Towers having little interaction with members of the public. After working with members of the European ladybird research community for several years I’ve witnessed how they make the most of every opportunity to engage the wider world in their work, whilst maintaining a scientific output that is the envy of many other fields. Without their hard work, and that of thousands of volunteer recorders the worlds of ecological and conservation science would be much poorer.

Barnaby Smith

Paper abstract on Diversity and Distributions journal website

The UK Ladybird Survey - record your sightings

Ladybirds (Coccinellidae) of Britain and Ireland - The Ladybird Atlas, published in 2011

Two of the paper authors recorded a programme in late 2011 for BBC Radio 4’s Living World series which looked at how ladybirds overwinter. Click here to listen again.

More details of the Diversity and Distributions paper

Ladybird slideshows
UK Ladybird images for press use
Ladybirds on show BBC Gardeners World Live 2011

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Celebrating World Wetlands Day!

Each year the 2nd February is designated as World Wetlands Day, marking the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971, which occurred in the small Iranian city of Ramsar. By the way the city's other claim to fame (according to Wikipedia!) is for having the highest levels of natural background radiation on Earth.

Wetlands provide essential ecosystem functions and services, including regulation of water quality, sustainable control and mitigation of flooding, greenhouse gas reduction, essential habitats for plants and animals, and cultural and recreational facilities. In recent years many organisations have run events on World Wetlands Day to raise public awareness of wetland values and benefits in general, and the Ramsar Convention in particular.

The focus for this year’s World Wetlands Day is "wetlands and tourism", an issue of great importance in the UK where many of our wetland conservation areas, including the Norfolk Broads, the Somerset Levels and Moors, and the Great Fen, are visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year.
CEH scientists are working in the Somerset
Levels and Moors
CEH scientists have ongoing projects in several UK wetland areas including the Somerset Levels and the Great Fen Project, where we use our specialist skills in hydro-ecological modelling, field-data collection and monitoring to provide advice to organisations attempting large-scale wetland restoration.

For World Wetlands Day this year CEH has created a new web-based tool to help wetland managers in England and Wales project the impacts of climate change in the next 50 years. The project, led by Professor Mike Acreman, brings together the best available science, presenting results in an easy to use form showing how future climate could impact on different types of wetlands. Professor Acreman hopes that, in future, the methods developed can be extended to assessing impacts in other countries.

A number of wetlands sites up and down the UK are hosting special events this weekend to mark World Wetlands Day, so it's a great opportunity to get out and visit one! It's also a good time of year to witness one of nature's most magnificent sights, a murmuration of starlings - when they sweep through the sky in their thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, before flying down and roosting in the trees. Wetlands reserves are renowned places to see them.

Why not take your camera when you are out and about at a wetlands site this weekend, and add your photos to our Wetlands in the UK Flickr group.

Posted by Barnaby and Paulette

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The impacts of invasive species

News emerged this week linking the presence of invasive Burmese pythons with a severe decline in mammal populations in the Everglades national park in Florida. The scientific study, led by US scientists and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the pythons have had a remarkable impact within just eleven years of their establishment as an invasive species in the 1.5 million acres park. In some areas, foxes, rabbits, raccoons and opossums have all but disappeared and the pythons have also been recorded as consuming deer and alligators. In their native habitats they predate animals the size of leopards.

Non-native species: A grey squirrel eating in a London park.

  The pythons in question are obviously large creatures with appetites to match and the scientists are working to understand how they influence community structure in complex ecosystems. Scientists in the UK are doing similar work, although our invasive non-native species generally influence the environment on a smaller scale. Well known examples that regularly appear in the UK national press include Grey squirrels, the Harlequin ladybird and Himalayan balsam.

Through one such project, Recording Invasive Species Counts , scientists hope to improve their understanding of the ecology and distribution of a number of species recognised as invasive, non-native species that are now established in Britain. It is co-ordinated by the National Biodiversity Network and the Biological Records Centre (part of CEH), in partnership with recording schemes for the animals and plants. (The project is funded by Defra).

The RISC project encourages members of the public to send in their sightings of a number of different species including muntjac deer, the chinese mitten crab and signal crayfish. While Britain has a great tradition of biological recording with well-established monitoring schemes for many different taxonomic groups, non-native species are under-recorded because in many cases they have not been the primary interest of researchers. We would encourage you to help change that by sending in your sightings! The evidence will prove valuable in the future, not just for ecologists but anyone with an interest in managing or enjoying the environment.

Further reading:

Posted by Paulette.